By David Kiley in New York
Goat tripe and kidney salad. Bone marrow and chestnut-stuffed ravioli. Goat heart with crispy artichokes, lemon, and oil. Lamb liver with crushed lentils and duck confit. And the most amazing dish I ate at Onera, on 79th Street in New York City? Braised beef tongue with ragout of porcini mushroom and white beans, with a soft poached egg laid on top. It was amazing because I don't even like tongue.
For a vegan or confirmed surf 'n' turfer, this menu would be a nightmare. For Anthony Bourdain, author of Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (Ecco Publishing, 2001) and host of the Discovery Channel's Cook's Tour show, and myself, it was nirvana -- a dining spectacle that made us want to carry Executive Chef Michael Psilakis out of the restaurant on our shoulders. Chefs who work with offal, says Bourdain, "are generally giving you all they got." Not so with the 10,000th order of steak frites or steamed lobster.
GROSS-OUT STATUS. Offal -- which defines organ meats as well as parts of the animal usually tossed out or sold to animal feed companies, like cheeks, ears, and tails -- has been turning up on menus of some of the hottest restaurants in New York, Boston, Washington, and the San Francisco Bay Area for about 18 months. The question posed to restaurant owners and chefs is whether the trend will cool off or if offal can overcome its gross-out status among most diners to become at least as much a mainstay on menus as game meat and birds like venison and quail.
"An all-guts restaurant isn't going to work, but there's a lot of interest, and some chefs are doing amazing things today," says Bourdain, an unabashed booster of offal. Besides being the executive chef at Brasserie Les Halles in New York City (a title he says is now ceremonial as he writes and makes TV shows), he personally arranged for the 2004 printing of Fergus Henderson's Nose to Tail Eating(Ecco, 2004). Henderson, the acknowledged international godfather of offal, is the executive chef at the London restaurant St. John, which serves roasted marrow bones and even squirrel to a legion of loyal innard eaters along the Thames.
Bourdain once famously ate the still beating heart of a fresh-killed cobra on his TV show, and days before arriving in New York to eat at Onera, he had dined on "putrified" shark in Iceland for an episode of his new Travel Channel show debuting in April, The Bourdain Experience. Said the jet-lagged and shark-lagged Bourdain: "It was god awful."
SHOCK AND AWE. But the offal tasting menu from Onera was anything but awful. "This guy [Psilakis] is a hero," proclaimed Bourdain, who knew nothing of the chef before we sat down. "I don't like brains to eat or to cook, and this guy's brains are the best I've ever had."
When you order Psilakis' offal, you're getting his love and everything in his arsenal poured out on the plate. "There's the shock and awe factor, which is a lot of fun," says Psilakis. "But taking customers on a trip they've never been on...that's a huge reward." The key, he says, to converting offal fraidy-cats to fans is paying attention to textures as well as flavors. His calf brains, for example, are crispy on the outside like onion rings, golden in color, and feathery light on the inside. At many a French bistro, brains are merely simmered in stock with vegetables, which leaves them a flaky, grayish, soft, scary affair.
"How and why do you eat that s**t," is a question posed all the time to offal eaters. Besides the fabulous tastes of deftly prepared guts and the contrast to mundane steaks, chops, and cutlets, the fun of eating a well-conceived offal dish is like time traveling. Aristocrats have traditionally taken the parts of the animal we're accustomed to -- drumsticks, breasts, ribs, steaks -- and left the "nasty bits" to the peasant class.
Fork through a lovingly prepared goat heart or a veal tripe infused with deep, rich veal stock, and you can imagine yourself eating a mid-day meal with a sweaty band of shepherds in the Pyrenees a hundred years ago. Offal is romantic and historic. I just can't rustle up such fantasies digging into a yet another burger or pasta primavera.
NO EMPTY TABLES. Worries about mad cow disease shouldn't deter the curious. The U.S. Agriculture Dept. banned the selling of brains of cattle older than 30 months. The 30-month cutoff is used because the incubation period for cattle to develop the disease ranges from months to many years. Still, it pays to restrict brain eating to restaurants where the chefs can assure diners of the source of the meat. At Onera, for example, Psilakis buys whole animals, rather than parts, from New York area organic farms.
Celebrity chef Mario Battali has done more to advance the cause of offal in the U.S. than any other single chef. Battali has been dishing brains, tripe, and ravioli stuffed with veal cheek for a couple of years. His restaurants, including the always full Babbo and Po in New York, attract offal eaters who sniff out well-conceived innards via restaurant reviews and Internet message boards found on foodie sites like www.eguullet.com. At Casa Mono in Manhattan, a restaurant part-owned by Battali, Chef Andy Nusser serves tapas-style portions of veal tripe simmered in stock and chorizo sausage and chick peas. His sweetbreads are fried like chicken in a crunchy, salty batter.
For my money, tasting and tapas menus like Casa Mono's are the best way to enjoy offal. The flavors are so rich that too much offal in one sitting can be like too much cake. Bourdain has a sober philosophy about eating well, and it's one of the reasons he enjoys offal tapas. "The best food in the world is best enjoyed in two bites...after that, you're eating by rote or out of obligation because it's on the plate and you have paid for it."
A few of the places to enjoy and experience offal:
Onera, 222 W. 79th St., New York City, 212-873-0200
Five-course offfal tasting menu, starting at $50, though offal dishes are also available à la carte for $10 to $12 per plate.
Pierre Au Tunnel, 250 West 47th St., New York City, 212 575-1220
Web site: www.pierreautunnel.com
Tte de Veau Vinaigrette (Calf's head) with a Vinaigrette and Caper Dressing, $14
Tripes á la Mode de Cæn (Veal tripe with white wine and Calvados) $15
These dishes aren't for the novice. They're huge helpings of classically prepared offal. Consider it the expert slope of innard eating
Casa Mono, 52 Irving Pl., New York City, 212 253-2773
Tripe with Chickpeas and Morcilla (blood sausage) $11
Sweetbreads with Fennel at Mono, $15
Excelsior, 272 Boylston St., Boston, 617 426-7878
Appetizer of roasted sweetbreads with rock shrimp and deep fried quail egg, $15
Oliveto, 5655 College Ave., Oakland, Calif., 510 547-5356
Web site: www.oliveto.com/
Tripe alla Fiorentino, $10.50
The "Whole Hog Dinners this restaurant is known for in winter months include:
Savory Blood Pudding with SautEed Apples and Aged balsamico $13.50
Terrine of Pickled Pork Ears, Giardiniera $8.50
Braised Pork Tripe with Ceci Beans $10
Mixed Fry: Pork Trotter, Brains, Artichokes, Spring Garlic, and "Meyer" Lemon $14.50
Grilled Pork Tongue and Heart, Bagnet Rosso and Salsa Verde $9.50
Edited by Patricia O'Connell